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The Weekly Gut Check - Vol. 140
Fantasy Seabiscuits
10/23/08

Rookie Scouting Portfolio The “Gut Feeling” is often synonymous with a sense of desperation resulting from a lack of preparation. The Gut Check is a huge proponent of studying the numbers, but there’s a point where one can place too much emphasis on the wrong information. This can result in the undervaluing or overlooking a player’s potential. Therefore, The Weekly Gut Check is devoted to examining the frame of reference behind certain number-driven guidelines that fantasy football owners use to make decisions.

Although The Weekly Gut Check doesn’t claim to be psychic, he does believe that he can dispel certain numbers biases and help you make the best choices for your team. We’ll keep a running tally of The Weekly Gut Check’s insights. This way you can gauge his views as something to seriously consider, or at least seriously consider running the opposite way as fast as you can!


Correction: In this week’s 20/20 Hindsight column, I wrote that Brad Childress mishandled the death of Sidney Rice’s grandmother. It was actually Troy Williamson. I simply forgot.

We just hit the halfway mark for most rationally structured, head-to-head fantasy leagues. If you’re thinking that we passed the halfway mark at this time last week, then somewhere along the way you’ve lost that “in it to win it” mentality and you’re probably struggling to stay in contention. Even if this is the case, this week’s column can still help you. I’m looking at players who have a good shot to make like the toughest racehorse in history – Seabiscuit – an unstoppable athlete down the stretch when the competition draws near.

Of course I’m using the horse metaphor because the position we’re most concerned with down the stretch are the fantasy workhorses, the running backs. Let’s take a look at last year’s top 24 runners through week seven (left) and weeks eight through fifteen (right).

 2007: First Seven Weeks
Player G Att Att/G Rush TDs* FPts Avg
Ronnie Brown 7 119 17 602 5 129 18.44
Adrian Peterson 6 108 18 670 6 122 20.28
LaDainian Tomlinson 6 122 20.3 527 7 116 19.28
Willis McGahee 7 146 20.9 639 3 97.2 13.89
Marion Barber 7 83 11.9 477 6 97 13.86
Brian Westbrook 5 89 17.8 490 3 96.9 19.38
Edgerrin James 7 156 22.3 605 4 91.3 13.04
Joseph Addai 5 100 20 492 5 87.4 17.48
LaMont Jordan 6 113 18.8 495 2 82.9 13.82
Clinton Portis 6 104 17.3 406 5 80.8 13.47
Marshawn Lynch 6 127 21.2 457 4 77.9 12.98
Derrick Ward 7 101 14.4 448 3 77.8 11.11
Larry Johnson 7 139 19.9 506 2 77 11.00
Maurice Jones-Drew 6 67 11.2 359 4 76.1 12.68
Willie Parker 6 142 23.7 600 1 73.7 12.28
Frank Gore 6 98 16.3 394 3 69.9 11.65
LenDale White 6 114 19 380 4 66.8 11.13
Reggie Bush 6 86 14.3 298 3 66.3 11.05
Travis Henry 6 119 19.8 549 1 66.1 11.02
Shaun Alexander 7 135 19.3 460 2 63.5 9.07
Cedric Benson 7 136 19.4 416 2 63 9.00
Kenny Watson 6 66 11 313 4 60.4 10.07
Sammy Morris 6 85 14.2 384 3 59.9 9.98
Earnest Graham 7 68 9.7 268 3 59.9 8.56
 2007: Last Eight Weeks
Player G Att Att/G Rush TDs* FPts Avg
Brian Westbrook 8 165 20.6 701 9 165 20.59
LaDainian Tomlinson 8 158 19.8 784 9 158 19.69
Jamal Lewis 8 174 21.8 702 9 141 17.68
Joseph Addai 8 151 18.9 527 9 134 16.7
Ryan Grant 8 162 20.3 772 6 124 15.55
Earnest Graham 7 145 20.7 609 7 119 17.01
Chester Taylor 8 98 12.3 559 7 118 14.7
Justin Fargas 8 176 22 737 4 112 14.04
Steven Jackson 7 138 19.7 629 5 112 16.01
Adrian Peterson 6 110 18.3 608 7 109 18.13
Clinton Portis 8 176 22 676 3 107 13.35
Fred Taylor 8 144 18 739 4 102 12.76
Willis McGahee 7 143 20.4 558 5 93.6 13.37
Frank Gore 7 118 16.9 525 2 89.2 12.74
Willie Parker 8 178 22.3 717 1 86.4 10.8
LenDale White 8 151 18.9 580 3 82.6 10.33
Marion Barber 7 92 13.1 392 5 81.8 11.69
Kevin Jones 8 106 13.3 399 5 81.7 10.21
Ron Dayne 7 111 15.9 506 3 76.1 10.87
Maurice Jones-Drew 8 90 11.3 365 4 75.4 9.43
Maurice Morris 7 93 13.3 423 3 74.3 10.61
Reggie Bush 6 71 11.8 283 3 69.5 11.58
Thomas Jones 7 133 19 476 1 66.1 9.44
Aaron Stecker 8 83 10.4 338 3 64.6 8.08

Just a quick glance illustrates that only one back was a top tier player from wire to wire: LaDainian Tomlinson. Westbrook was on the bubble in the first half, but you can see he separated himself from the field in the second half. Did you wonder why I was down on Willis McGahee this year? Look at his ranking change. It’s not that he performed much different than he did from one half of the season to the other, he just failed to do what several backs ahead of him managed to do: turn it up a notch down the stretch. Owners of Westbrook, Ryan Grant, Joseph Addai, and (especially) Earnest Graham and Jamal Lewis can tell you that you can come out of the pack of 4-3, 3-4, or even 2-5 teams and scare the heck out of your competition in the playoffs.

Let’s analyze what we’re seeing in more detail. Several backs saw a significant increase (five or more) in attempts per game down the stretch: Fred Taylor (+6); Earnest Graham (+11); Justin Fargas (+14); and Ryan Grant (+19). With the exception of Taylor, the common factor among these backs was injury to another back on the depth chart. It’s likely this will occur in 2008. With Laurence Maroney gone for the year we could see one of Lamont Jordan, Sammy Morris, or even Ben Jarvus Green come to the forefront. Larry Johnson has problems that extend beyond football and it appears there’s a good reason the Chiefs drafted talented Longhorns back, Jamaal Charles. Justin Fargas has returned to health after missing a few weeks with a groin injury. Deuce McAllister gets a shot at becoming an integral part of the offense with Reggie Bush missing in action for the next month. Then there’s Cedric Benson taking over in Cincinnati – as unlikely as it seemed when the former Bear was getting a photo-op at the county jail. If Joseph Addai or Willie Parker suffers relapses, Dominc Rhodes and Mewelde Moore have proven capable, but they are strictly short-term options (as is McAllister).

The player I’m most anxious to see from this group is Denver rookie, Ryan Torain, who is coming back from injury and has a chance to be the main back. My reasoning is that Michael Pittman is a physical back, but as evidenced by the Patriots game his age may be catching up with him. Getting banged up as much as he did in the contest potentially illustrated al point the coaching staff had when they used him as a goal line back and seem reluctant to go with him over Selvin Young and Ahmad Hall. Torain is a tough runner in the mold of a Pittman, but has youth on his side.

The other players who I consider strong down the stretch are backs with performances that basically remain the same or get better even with additional carries. What this means is teams rely upon them due to their stamina, toughness, and smarts. I could show the stats, but I’ve done second half stat splits numerous times over the years. The players that tend to really come on down the stretch tend to be your smaller, quicker backs that run hard between the tackles. In the recent past, these backs included Brian Westbrook, Tiki Barber, Clinton Portis, and Frank Gore.

Let’s look at the first half of 2008 to see if we have any clear-cut candidates.

 2008: First Seven Weeks
Player G Att Att/G Rush TDs* FPts Avg
1. Clinton Portis 7 163 23.3 818 7 130.9 18.7
2. Marion Barber 7 128 18.3 540 7 120.7 17.2
3. Matt Forte 7 147 21 515 6 109.8 15.7
4. Frank Gore 7 118 16.9 535 5 108.1 15.4
5. Adrian Peterson 7 151 21.6 684 5 104.9 15.0
6. Steven Jackson 6 121 20.2 508 4 100.7 16.8
7. Michael Turner 6 128 21.3 597 6 96.8 16.1
8. Reggie Bush 7 87 12.4 294 5 96 13.7
9. Brandon Jacobs 6 96 16 516 6 90.1 15.0
10. Ronnie Brown 6 84 14 363 7 89.1 14.9
11. Chris Johnson 6 103 17.2 549 4 86.2 14.4
12. LaDainian Tomlinson 7 123 17.6 446 4 83.6 11.9
13. Steve Slaton 6 89 14.8 423 5 83.5 13.9
14. Earnest Graham 7 95 13.6 456 4 81.9 11.7
15. Marshawn Lynch 6 111 18.5 400 5 81.3 13.6
16. LenDale White 6 80 13.3 314 8 80.1 13.4
17. Maurice Jones-Drew 6 65 10.8 301 5 78.5 13.1
18. Thomas Jones 6 108 18 478 4 77.8 13.0
19. DeAngelo Williams 7 104 14.9 417 4 71.8 10.3
20. Jonathan Stewart 7 87 12.4 349 5 66.1 9.4
21. Brian Westbrook 4 54 13.5 194 6 65.1 16.3
22. Michael Pittman 7 69 9.86 317 4 64.8 9.3
23. Sammy Morris 6 69 11.5 307 4 63.7 10.6
24. Jamal Lewis 6 109 18.2 403 2 62.3 10.4
One thing to notice from the last table is that unless there is an injury to a player, carries per game don’t change too much from the first half of the season to the last half. This is because game plans don’t change much if the personnel remain stable.

If you have Clinton Portis, Marion Barber, Matt Forte, Adrian Peterson, and Michael Turner, consider yourself fortunate. It’s unlikely these players will increase their carries – in fact, you’ll likely see a slight drop in carries per game – but their production should remain steady enough. If you’re an egomaniacal, risk-taking nut job I guess Portis is your best trade-high option, because at 23.3 attempts per game, it’s likely he’ll drop 4-5 carries per contest down the stretch. Go ahead and trade him, just make sure it’s to me!

The backs I would watch are the high producers with less than 17 carries per game. I’m rounding up with Gore, so consider him part of the steady-Freddy’s I mentioned above, especially with the additional 3.5 receptions per game added to his attempt total. Still there are several of them to mention. I’ll split them into two groups.

The Hard Chargers

Chris Johnson: Donít let Lendale Whiteís big game in Kansas City fool you, Chris Johnson is the headliner in this tag team duo. You donít average five yards per carry on 100 attempts without proving your talent. I was skeptical of Johnson making this much of an impact as an every down runner, but his 17.2 attempts per game also prove otherwise. Tennessee is healthy, on a roll, and their defense will keep the running game a viable method of attack. With defenses getting beat up this time of year, Johnson will make them pay with his speed.

Marshawn Lynch: He already totes it 18.5 times per game, but as defenses realize that Trent Edwards will continue to complete 65%-plus on them, Lynch will get some breathing room. Throw in the return of Jason Peters, who should be getting into football shape and back in the swing of things by now, and look for Marshawn Lynch to be the beneficiary.

Sammy Morris: As long as the knee is okay, I think Morris is playing the best football of the available runners on the New England depth chart. Heís always been a tough runner and I think he could have an Earnest Graham-like stretch run in 2008.

Fading Fast

Ronnie Brown: Baltimore exposed the gimmick formation last week. Brown may look good coming off his torn ACL, but heís looking good on 14 carries per game. I donít expect this number to increase with Ricky Williams available to prevent Brown from getting overworked too soon from his injury.

Reggie Bush: He was having a great season, but if youíve been reading Bob Thompsonís new weekly column, Anatomy of An Injury, you know that Bush had his meniscus removed, which means heíll rehab quicker than if they stitched up the tear, but his long term health will be in greater jeopardy. For a guy that relies on sharp cuts and stop-start moves requiring strong acceleration, Iím not sure why Bush would opt for this surgical option other than impatience to get back on the field and prove heís as good as advertised.

Steve Slaton: Iím still skeptical despite the fact Slaton has run with more authority up the middle with the Texans compared to his days as a Mountaineer where he moved like Fred Astaire. The only strong defense he averaged more than 3.8 ypc was the Titans and Tennessee was in control in this game long enough that they were allowing the run so time could go by faster. With Ahman Green still hanging around, Iím not counting on Slaton as a strong option in the second half.

Holding Steady

Brandon Jacobs and Brian Westbrook: Jacobs has two other backs the Giants like to rotate to keep Jacobs fresh. Westbrookís injury will slow him down some, but not long enough for his productivity to take a permanent downturn for the entire second half.

The Bozo

Phil Savage is on the wrong side of the Kellen Winslow issue. The Browns tight end has been far from a model player, but when your gonads swell up to the size of grapefruits due to staph infection and the team wants you to hide it to protect their image, something is wrong. Savage can come out with a 32000-word statement if he wants, heís still wrong to attempt to pin the blame of the infection on Winslow because he didnít show up to the training session. If the team is that concerned with enforcing a policy to take preventative measures with staph infections, it was their responsibility to enforce the rules. They could have fined Winslow for missing the session and use the money to bring back the trainers, and have Winslow attend.

I agree that Winslowís comments arenít good form as an employee in an organization, but to fine and suspend a guy for telling the truth about an organizationís woes that potentially impact their health, and ultimately their careers, if not addressed is retaliatory.

Letís remember, Phil Savage doesnít have the amount of experience managing others that you would think for an executive. Other than his tenure with the Browns his resume doesnít have him in a management like position where he leads players for more than one year. Savage was an English major that played football at University of the South and got his masterís in physical education. He joined Alabama as an intern and worked his way through the college ladder as a position coach. Then he made the quick transition to a scouting role where he ascended quickly to a director of scouting position. His area of expertise that earned him an opportunity to really manage players came from observing players not leading them.

In fact, he left his first true management position in Baltimore because it was rumored he was going to be fired if he didnít. When you examine his career in this light, you realize that Phil Savageís strength isnít managing people. Heís going to come out of this with egg on his face, which will include a close door meeting with the NFL about how to avoid future lawsuits.

The Bully

I love watching Larry Johnson bully peopleÖwhen those people are opponents in an NFL game. When they are women, Iím disgusted with LJís behavior. Itís cowardly and reprehensible. I think someone needs to force to LJ read about whatís happening to women in the Congo and try to imagine it were his mother, sister, or grandmother. Didnít he learn to treat women with the same respect as if they were his mother, sister, or daughter? At least he made a public statement that appeared to explain he was at fault.

Barack

Ricky OíReillyís column on ESPN.com tells the story of him meeting Barack Obama to draft a fantasy team. Its brief piece, but you get the idea that Obama truly understood how fantasy football works and made some excellent picks over a ďsports writer.Ē I donít care who youíre voting for and I donít want your emails about how much you agree or disagree with the democratic nominee. Just appreciate a politician who knows his fantasy football enough to make solid decisions. Drafting Drew Brees and Clinton Portis a few weeks ago was impressive Ė especially with a sportswriter the caliber of Rick Reilly arguing with you.